The Frontstretch: Five Points to Ponder: Rowdy's Coup, A Dying Cup Team And Why Norm Benning Made The News by Bryan Davis Keith -- Tuesday April 5, 2011

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ONE: Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s Runner-Up Result Has No Negative

Dale Jr. came oh so close to ending the longest losing streak of his career at Martinsville this past Sunday, falling only a few laps short to a red hot Kevin Harvick. And for as stellar a result as it was for the No. 88 team, any observer of Jr. and his post-race reactions would be very correct in expressing concern over his emotional state of mind following the event. Despite his remarks, Jr. thought that Martinsville was going to be the place the losing stopped. He was convinced, after bumping Kyle Busch from the lead, that he had this race won. Speaking fast, Earnhardt was doing everything he could to hold back his emotions.

If this was 2010 and Earnhardt still had wet noodle Lance McGrew atop the pit box, this obvious dejection would be cause for concern. But with proven leader Steve Letarte in control of the reins, this utter emotionality is something Jr. fans should be thrilled to see. It’s one thing for a driver running 22nd to express frustration with poor performance, but a driver that runs second and is utterly devastated is more than that. They’re hungry, they’re possessed…and they’re going to win very soon.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.‘s extreme disappointment after a second-place finish is exactly what the doctor ordered for fans enduring his 99-race…and counting…winless streak.

All of the questions regarding both Earnhardt’s talent behind the wheel and his mindset as a major league race car driver were put to rest this past Sunday. A true driver’s track, Earnhardt took the bull by the horns in moving Kyle Busch to take the lead, taking a car that even the driver admitted was at best a top 10 machine and turning the afternoon into a near-win. And as for running second, there was no mistaking just how distraught NASCAR’s most popular driver was over it. There was a complete and utter sense of devastation in his post-race remarks.

Any competitor displaying that kind of agony isn’t going to let it continue for much longer. By Talladega, Earnhardt will be back in Victory Lane.

TWO: Kyle Busch Signing of Raikkonen a Shrewd Move

The ink was barely dry on articles that 2007 Formula One champion Kimi Raikkonen was not going to be making his NASCAR debut with Gillett-family backing when another king of controversy, one Kyle Busch, announced that his Truck Series operation would field the Finnish driver in his stock car debut at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May. Raikkonen is now slated to test at Gresham Motorsports Park this week.

The decision by Raikkonen not to follow through with a Gillett deal is a no-brainer; the family’s list of financial transgressions within the sport could fill encylopedias, while trying to make a NASCAR debut with a less than premier organization is an open-wheel recipe for disaster. Just ask Jacques Villeneuve.

Busch’s move to sign him to drive for his truck team was not so certain a good thing, but it terms of business decisions the young owner scored a coup with this signing. Be it the product of a slow newsweek or the fact that figures such as Ray Evernham wasted no time publicly trashing the ownership group that initially was trying to bring Raikkonen into the sport, this story has become nearly as big a story as when Juan Pablo Montoya announced that he was making the very same move back in 2006. And by inserting himself and his race team, an operation still searching for additional sponsor dollars for 2011 and beyond, Busch turned KBM into a story not only in the weeks to come, but further on a weekend in Charlotte where the All-Star Race is supposed to take center stage from everything else.

Busch the owner just made quite the splash. Maybe that will fill the hole where the two grandfather clocks he narrowly missed on this weekend were going to go.

THREE: The Future of the No. 37 Team Very Much In Doubt

As has been reported in recent weeks, Front Row Motorsports has been keeping the No. 37 car running to bridge the gap until new owner Larry Gunselman can get his house in order to take the operation over. Walking the pits at Martinsville this weekend, while its unclear as to just how far the transition away from Front Row Motorsports has gotten officially, it was more than obvious that the team is no longer operating as an FRM entry. The crew was smaller. Both David Gilliland and Travis Kvapil had five sets of sticker tires each for their race cars…while Tony Raines’ No. 37 had nothing but scuffs. Front Row’s cars were emblazened with their trademark fast food decals, representing team owner Bob Jenkins’ restaurant chain. Not so for Raines’ car.

Besides the obvious conclusion that can be drawn for any car seen at the track with a diminished crew and a lack of sticker tires, there are two obvious concerns for fans of both Raines and full-time Sprint Cup entries not reduced to playing the role of start-and-park. For one, Larry Gunselman’s ownership history at the Cup level is far from stellar, with his No. 64 entry last season running past the halfway mark only once in 16 starts. Two, anyone paying close attention throughout the weekend would have noticed the sponsor decal present on the No. 37’s hood…that of Raymond Key’s contracting company. The same Raymond Key whose Keyed-Up Motorsports had disappeared from the Cup circuit before the all-star break in its inaugural season.

There’s no reason to say anything negative about Gunselman or Key, or their intentions of being involved with the No. 37 team. The unfortunate reality though, especially for Tony Raines fans, is there’s a whole lot of history taking over this race team. And none of that history has a strong sense of longevity.

FOUR: Norm Benning’s Anger at Justin Lofton a Product of an Existential Struggle

Norm Benning has certainly been a topic of discussion since moving to the Truck Series full-time a few seasons ago, but more often than not for Ron Hornaday and Todd Bodine moaning about how far off the pace his No. 57 entry is. On this Saturday, however, Benning found himself involved in a rare on-track incident, tagging the No. 77 of Justin Lofton on lap 18 and ending any prayer of contention for a fellow former ARCA regular

Benning’s team insisted that Lofton was driving over his head. Lofton’s team was incensed that a backmarker took them out. And for over 200 laps, this festered, until the two trucks pulled onto pit road following the end of the race one behind the other. Both drivers emerged from their machines, and both exchanged words…only it was Benning, not Lofton, who was doing the vast majority of the talking and gesturing.

How does that work, that the driver who wrecked the other is the one angry? It’s simple really…Benning can’t afford to be in situations like this, to have drivers angry at him. Because while his team was being glib over the radio when they referred to Lofton’s racing “on daddy’s money,” Lofton does indeed have family money, and plenty of it. That means that when he wrecks trucks, they get fixed.

The same can’t be said for Benning, who runs the same truck week after week. His team wrecks a truck, they’re out of business. Meaning that having a driver like Lofton, who’s obviously upset with the No. 57 and, correctly or not, is seemingly ready to go after said team in the weeks to come, poses an existential threat to Benning’s racing career. And considering that Benning didn’t believe that he was in wrong, that Lofton came across his nose, who can blame him for being angry in that situation, justified or not?

FIVE: A Well-Flagged Race

In case a six-pack rating by our own Matt McLaughlin didn’t drive the point home enough, Sunday’s race at Martinsville was fantastic. And in addition to the action on-track that was plentiful and entertaining, NASCAR’s officiating was for once up to par. This time, there was not a yellow flag that flew the second a tire went flat or a car scraped the wall. Instead, the race was allowed to play itself out, with the immediate yellow coming out only in very deserving cases such as Martin Truex, Jr.‘s harrowing stuck-throttle wreck in turn 3.

That’s the way it should be. If a driver can get a car with a flat tire or a flattened quarterpanel out of the way and keep it moving, there’s no reason for the race to stop, especially in a day where track position is of supreme importance at every venue, be it to stay up front at a bullring or to take advantage of clean air on an intermediate oval. NASCAR acted like that was their modus operandi this Sunday, and the race benefited as a result.

Then again, 36 dates at Martinsville would benefit a lot of things too.

Contact Bryan Davis Keith

Tuesday on the Frontstretch:
Who’s Hot / Who’s Not in NASCAR: Martinsville-Texas Edition
Fact Or Fiction: Caution Flag Consistency, Make-Or-Break For Hamlin And IOUs
800 Starts, One Sprint Cup Title? Martin’s Push For Last Run At The Chase
Talking NASCAR TV: Hot Dog Overload
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Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
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SB
04/05/2011 06:48 AM
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The on track action this weekend was what fans have been missing at Bristol lately.

Carl D.
04/05/2011 09:16 AM
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I hadn’t really though much about the officiating at Martinsville on Sunday, but you’re right… it did seem the race was better officiated. The racing was exciting and the overall pace of the event was pretty good as well. The weakest part of the whole event was the broadcast crew. Not a weekend goes by that I don’t miss Ned & Benny.

wcfan
04/05/2011 04:14 PM
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While you are correct in there was no instant caution for flat tires, the “superstar’s” had no flat tires either.

When a big money teams starts having tire problems with no caution being thrown then a will give nascar a good job.

I have just never seen consistancy in Big Money and No Money teams when nascar throws cautions.

Ken
04/05/2011 05:20 PM
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No, there has never been consistancy in any calls made by NASCAR, and I’ve always suspected the blatant favouritism toward one particular organization over the other teams, even since Toyota’s entry into Brian’s “show”. That’s why I laughed when I read that Jimmie apologized for his comments about his speeding penalty. Come on Jimmie, you and Chad have bent the rules so much and gotten away with way too much! It’s nice to see you get busted. The Felon must have been late with his pay-off to Brian this week. Bet Jimmy Spencer gives Johnson another crying towel on RaceHub tonight. That will be two within a week! Looks good on you Jimmie!

Marybeth
04/05/2011 07:13 PM
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@Susan, If it were Mark Martin in Jr.‘s place at the end of the race and he realized his back end was loose & a faster car was coming & did the smart thing instead of causing a wreck at the front of the field, you would be praising him as an experienced, savvy, gentleman driver & that that is the reason MM has lasted so long in the sport at the top level.

Overra88ted
04/05/2011 07:54 PM
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The Wet Noodle driving the #88 car, who has 1 win in the last 5 years had victory STARING him in the face and did not enough Nats to take the win. MaryBeth… YOUR DRIVER CHOKED!How embarassing!

Steve
04/07/2011 03:38 PM
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How can you tell how Jr feels. He gives the same interview every week. Whether he finishes 3rd or 33rd he acts like someone just shot his dog. And saying that he didn’t want to be the bad guy really showed the lack of drive Jr has now to win races. Harvick or Busch would have had no problems moving him over for the win, so I’m not sure why he feels he has to be nice to them, especially after saying in the same interview that he really wanted to win the race bad.

People took his interview as a positive. But I saw it the other way. I took it as a guy who doesn’t have the will to win anymore.

Regarding the 37, with their good run at Martinsville, they are now in the top 35, so maybe they should be moving some sponsorship over to that car to keep it there.

OhioMatt
04/07/2011 03:48 PM
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Not exactly sure why Junior is getting slammed so hard for finishing second. From where I was sitting, it looked like he was driving his car for all it was worth. And he got passed by a faster car in the end… after a fantastic attempt at a cross over move to re-take the lead.

It seems some would like to criticize him for bumping Busch out of the way, but failing to do so with Harvick. I would dispute that Junior purposely bumped Busch out of the way in the first place. From the first time I watched it through several replay viewings, it seems pretty obvious the Junior just barely had the inside position by driving into turn 3 deeper, and Busch came down on Junior, resulting in the contact. Don’t take my word for it, check out this video at the 2:14 mark: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nT8FAE182zk . That doesn’t fit my definition of the bump and run.

It seemed pretty apparent that Junior tried to race his competitors cleanly. I don’t think he “bumped” Busch out of the way, and he openly admitted that he wasn’t going to bump Harvick out of the way. And I don’t have a problem with it. To me, “bump and run victories” are like “Chase Championships,” they just don’t mean as much. It takes more skill to pass cleanly and win than to just knock someone out of the way. Jeff Burton and Mark Martin have raced that way for years, and I don’t have a problem with it. Nor do I have a problem with Junior driving the wheels off his car in an attempt to get a clean win….